The cry for help that saved Josh Waldhuter's life
Aussie bowling allrounder and Global Games squad member reflects on his lowest point, his near-death experience and how cricket – and love – has helped him get back on track
Josh Waldhuter looked around the bowling alley and, from his convoluted mind's eye, couldn't see a single person who cared. Sitting away from the action, he was in his own world, far from the lights and the music and the general hubbub of the place. He looked at the table in front of him. An assortment of foods had been spread across its surface. He zeroed in on the peanut butter. It was the one item there he never ate. Never even touched. Because it was the one item he knew could kill him.
"And then I picked it up," he remembers, "and put some in my mouth".
Josh's mum Tiffany told him a story just the other day. It was from back in his childhood when he was maybe seven or eight years old. Tiffany had been called in for another school meeting regarding Josh's erratic behaviour. Also in attendance were a couple of representatives from Autism South Australia and a woman from the school board. The meeting began productively as discussion centred upon finding constructive ways to engage and educate Josh. But the woman from the school board was confused.
"She looked at my mum," recounts Josh, "and said, 'But when is he going to get better?'"
Josh, who is a medium pacer in Australia's national team for cricketers with an intellectual disability, has Asperger Syndrome, considered a milder version of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which the World Health Organisation says is characterised by 'difficulties in social interaction and communication and a restricted and repetitive repertoire of interests and activities'. It is a lifelong condition, and for Josh, one that has come with considerable tumult.
"Mum had so many parents who didn't want their kids in the same room as me," he says. "I was aggressive. I would throw a chair across the room. Throw my pencil case. I punched people.
"I look back and that's the hardest thing, knowing that I hurt people physically. I think, How the hell did I do that? I think that was my frustration, my not understanding, and I would just lash out.
"Mum tells me these stories and I'm just like, 'Thank you so much for being there – I'm sorry'."
Josh was a full-time student until year nine, but his education tailed away thereafter, his incompatibility with the school system an issue that was never quite resolved. He was in and out of casual jobs but in his late teens he became anxious and depressed about what he perceived to be an aimlessness in life. That feeling was magnified considerably, he says, by Asperger Syndrome.
"Definitely at my lowest point I felt useless," he says. "And like I was a burden on people."
He was 20 when he put the peanut butter in his mouth at the bowling alley, acutely aware it would trigger a severe anaphylactic reaction. He had felt alone with his problems, that no-one was truly listening to him, let alone understanding.
"It was a cry for help," he says. "Like, 'Look at me, I'm hurting – what do I have to do?'"
So he lolled the dollop of peanut butter around in his mouth for a couple of seconds, his life genuinely in the balance; if he decided to swallow it, a doctor later told him, the chances were better than even he would die.
He spat it out.
His mouth blew up like a balloon as feelings of disgust and shame engulfed him. He didn't want anyone looking at him, but it quickly became clear to others he needed immediate help. An ambulance was called. So too his mother. He was whisked away to hospital where he was assessed and, after also seeing a psychologist, discharged.
"It was like an overload for me, mentally," he says. "There was so much going on in my head that it just exploded.
"That was the biggest turning point of my life. I said to myself, 'What the hell are you doing?'"
Roll up to any high-level cricket match in Adelaide and there's a good chance you'll spot Josh. He's the one decked out in the appropriate cap and shirt – be it Redbacks, Strikers, Scorpions or Australia – leaning over the fence as the players come in from the field, hoping to grab an autograph or a selfie. It is the same with the Adelaide Crows, and his SANFL team, Sturt, for whom each week he dresses up as Bluey the mascot and earns a small wage to pose for photos with smiling kids and liven up the crowd.
This is what he loves. Asperger Syndrome has brought with it a myriad of challenges in Josh's life but he has learned nowadays to embrace at least some of the feelings it heightens. The result is unbridled passion, and boundless enthusiasm.
"I'm a normal guy but I think feelings and emotions are amplified for me, and that's all it is," he says of Asperger Syndrome. "I love it when people just ask me about it. I'll try and explain it as best as I can. You don't have to act like there's an elephant in the room."
The key to his recovery from depression, he believes, has been a shift in the way he has handled the anger, fear and frustration that builds up inside him. Instead of internalising, he began communicating. To his psychologist, to his parents, to his sister Lucy. It was a simple remedy but one that he only felt comfortable with as he moved into his twenties. He is thankful the change came when it did; he knows for others, the same issues can be much more complex.
"I have talked to a few people who have been like I was, and I've told them, don't (self-harm), it's not worth it – I saw people so scared, and I scared myself," Josh says of his incident with the peanut butter. "I know people get a lot worse depression than I did. It's a terrible disease. I got out of it and I was very lucky, because I know people don't get out of it.
"Do I regret it? Yes. Am I glad it happened? Yes. Because I needed a wake up. A kick up the butt. It's made my family stronger with me as well because I talked with them so much about things after that happened."
Cricket will be one of ten sports represented at this years INAS Global Games in Brisbane! The Australian Cricket side includes 14 of the 1000 elite athletes who will compete in this inspirational celebration of sport, culture and ability. #ASportforAll pic.twitter.com/pMbSYyFAzi— Cricket Australia (@CricketAus) September 8, 2019
There was a time when Josh was going to quit cricket because of the pressure he was putting on himself when it came to performance. It takes only a minute speaking with him to see that he is extremely eager to please, and though the trait can be a positive one, it has also proven detrimental.
"When I used to get out I would throw the bat because I didn't want people to see me fail," he says. "It happened in indoor cricket as well – I got so frustrated with my performances because I wanted to do well for the team. I'd get out and I'd get down: I can't play cricket, I can't do it.
"I realise now that I overreact about things. I'm a lot more aware these days. I think the biggest thing with me is I don't want to fail, because I don't want to disappoint people – but of course I'm going to fail sometimes."
He faces the same challenge, no matter the task – be it playing video games or working as a goal umpire at his local footy ground. He quit his indoor cricket umpiring job fundamentally because, like any sports official, he was unable to find a way to please everyone.
It is also why he is working so hard right now. He has linked up with fellow Adelaide-based Australia reps Luke and Jesse Goodman, and the trio have been training with national coach John Lonergan on Monday nights for the upcoming INAS Global Games in Brisbane – the first time cricket will be part of the event. Josh's medium-pace inswingers are considered a dangerous weapon in Australia's armoury, while Lonergan also believes the 27-year-old has made significant strides with the bat.
"He's left-handed and he can work the ball around, so I've really been pushing him on his batting, getting him to work those ones and twos," Lonergan says. "He could be that middle-lower order option for us."
Josh is intensely proud to again be representing Australia. As a kid, he loved to watch his dad, Richard, play cricket and footy with Adelaide Lutheran Sports Club. Later, after some gentle cajoling from Richard, who had seen him batting and bowling on his own out the front of their house, Josh signed up for the same club. He has now played 76 matches there.
"Adelaide Lutheran's been amazing to me," he says. "They didn't treat me like I had a disability. They weren't like, 'OK, Josh has a disability – we'll put him over here'. They just included me in the mix."
In 2014 he was picked for the South Australian indoor all-abilities team and he insists it has improved his all-round skills dramatically. He remembers cutting then Australia captain Gavan Hicks for four while playing for South Australia at the National Cricket Inclusion Championships earlier this year (a tournament he won with South Australia in 2018), and not quite believing he had managed the shot. Now he is set to play alongside Hicks in Brisbane, where he hopes he will bat at seven or eight.
"If you'd told me five years ago that I was going to be in the Australian team I'd have said 'You're joking'," he says. "I guess I have come a long way. (Having autism is) not something you should be ashamed of."
Josh met Hanna at the 2016 Clipsal 500 in Adelaide. The pair bonded quickly, laughs Josh, over their respective allergies.
"I'm allergic to nuts, eggs, sesame seeds, seafood and wheat," he says, ticking each one off like a shopping list. "And Hanna's got apples, wheat, ibuprofen and penicillin.
"I was just like, 'Apples? I've never met anyone that was allergic to apples'. We talked for a while and we just clicked."
Hanna is a mechanical engineer for the department of defence ("she's very clever," says Josh, "she's breaking down barriers") and the two enjoy simply "nerding out" together, be it over Pokemon or Star Wars. She has also been a confidante for and supporter of her partner. A voice of reason and belief.
"Ever since I met Hanna, people have just said I've been a different person," Josh says. "I've learnt so much. And she doesn't put up with my shit.
"We complement each other very well, and she's been so great with my cricket because she understands that's where my passion is."
In July, Hanna gave birth to their first child, a girl named Megan. The parents-to-be had discussed the possibility that Josh's genes could increase the chances of their daughter having ASD (something that wouldn't become apparent for a couple of years) but ultimately, it was something they believed they could manage should they be required.
"I just said to Josh that I love him with autism, so I'm going to love our baby with autism," Hanna says.
The trio live in Seaton, a suburb around 20 minutes north-west of Adelaide's CBD. Josh cannot wait to get Megan into cricket, perhaps even to follow in the footsteps of his favourite cricketer, Australia fast bowler – and proud Adelaidean – Megan Schutt (baby Megan was named after Hanna's great aunt, although Josh jokes his love of Australia's opening bowler played a role as well).
But there are other things he wants to teach his daughter as well.
"I want my daughter to know there's no barriers these days," he says. "I mean, I have a disability and I play cricket. Her mum is a female mechanical engineer. She can do anything she wants."
Shortly before Megan's birth, Josh was scheduled to again represent South Australia's all-abilities side in the National Indoor Cricket Championships in Cranbourne, south of Melbourne. When he realised the tournament clashed with Megan's due date, he was devastated at the prospect of not being able to play, but ultimately, he was able to view his choice in a positive light.
"I said to Hanna, 'Look, you want me to stay, don't you?'" he says. "And it was hard, but I stayed. It was growth for me, another learning."
For Josh, it was proof that his attempt to live the national squad's values of 'Positive, growth, respectful' is bearing fruit. More significantly though, it was a moment of realisation, a sign of how far he has come since that feeling of uselessness plagued his mind all those years ago.
"I said to myself, 'Come on Josh, you're a partner, and you're going to be a father – you're actually needed here'," he reflects. "It was a nice feeling."
Cricket at the 2019 INAS Global Games in Brisbane
Entry to these matches is free of charge
Tues, Oct 8, 10am: Australia v England (ODI), Dauth Park, Beenleigh
Thurs, Oct 10, 10am: Australia v England (ODI), Dauth Park, Beenleigh
Fri, Oct 11, 10am: Australia v England (ODI), Dauth Park, Beenleigh
Sat, Oct 12, 10am: Official Global Games opening
Sun, Oct 13, 10am: Australia v England (T20I), South Brisbane DCC, Fairfield
Mon, Oct 14, 10am: Australia v England (T20I), South Brisbane DCC, Fairfield
Wed, Oct 16, 10am: Australia v England (T20I), Allan Border Field, Albion
Thurs, Oct 17, 10am: Australia v England (T20I), Allan Border Field, Albion
Fri, Oct 18, 10am: Australia v England (T20I), Allan Border Field, Albion